Why Midwest farmers are sticking with Trump

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A U.S. flag flies on a farm on Sept. 25, 2020, in Wisconsin. On the whole, farmers support President Donald Trump.
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It’s been a tough few years for farmers. Milk and livestock spoiled or went unsold during the initial pandemic lockdowns. And President Donald Trump’s bruising trade wars have led to retaliatory tariffs and bans on U.S. agricultural exports. 

Yet in Wisconsin, a battleground state in next week’s election, farmers remain among the president’s strongest supporters, just as they are in states like Ohio and Michigan. While their numbers are modest – farmers make up 9% of eligible voters in Wisconsin – their votes are eagerly courted by Republican campaigners seeking to offset their expected losses in suburban districts. 

Why We Wrote This

Farmers are an important rural constituency, whose support for President Trump has held up despite his trade wars that dented exports.

Republicans can count on Terry Hock’s vote. He’s a Wisconsin dairy farmer who applauds President Trump for standing up to China. “He’s the only one that ever stood up against it, or any foreign country,” he says. “I also like the fact that he’s a businessman.”

The Trump administration has also ensured that a generous amount of federal aid flows to farmers whose exports have suffered. Last year payments from the federal government made up an estimated 40% of farmers’ incomes. 

But there are other reasons why farmers back Mr. Trump and are wary of his challenger’s agenda. Brigette Leach, a vegetable farmer in Michigan, worries about the Democrats’ Green New Deal proposals. “Anything that looks or sounds like the Green New Deal – I see nothing in any of it that bodes well for agriculture,” she says. 

In the war of signage, there’s no contest along the back roads of Wisconsin. As combines cut down the last standing corn and flocks of geese crease the gray sky, the countryside blossoms with blue “Trump Pence 2020” signs that promise to “Keep America Great.”

Farming has been less than great in recent years. Buffeted by trade wars and the disruptions of COVID-19, many crop and livestock farmers have struggled. 

Last spring, dairy farmers dumped milk they could not sell; pig farmers couldn’t send their animals to market. And many farmers have gone out of business, especially in Wisconsin, where the number of dairy farms continues to fall and the good years are distinguished from the bad only by the rate of decline.

Why We Wrote This

Farmers are an important rural constituency, whose support for President Trump has held up despite his trade wars that dented exports.

Still, for all the difficulties of the Trump era, farmers remain among the president’s staunchest supporters, reflecting both Republican leanings in general in rural America and support among farmers in particular for President Donald Trump’s stances on deregulation, trade, and related issues. In battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, farmers are a demographic that still matters, even as the broader tide has turned against Mr. Trump’s path to winning a second term. (In Wisconsin, Democratic challenger Joe Biden has maintained a steady polling lead, with the Real Clear Politics rolling average showing him up 6 percentage points.)

President Trump “is finally standing up to China,” says Terry Hock, a dairy farmer in Outagamie County, about 10 miles west of Green Bay. Mr. Hock was steering a mini loader across his barnyard on a recent morning when he stopped to talk about the election. “He’s the only one that ever stood up against it, or any foreign country,” he says. “I also like the fact that he’s a businessman.”

Then there are the payments. Under Mr. Trump, the federal government made unprecedented extra outlays to farmers – $19.3 billion in total in 2018 and 2019 – to soften the blow from foreign tariffs on agricultural exports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the government subsidized 40% of farmers’ incomes last year. 

Richard Mertens
Dairy farmer Terry Hock, shown in October on his farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is glad President Donald Trump has stood up to China.

Farmers also got big payments this year from the CARES Act, designed to shore up an economy battered by the pandemic. In Wisconsin, more than 15,000 farmers received payments averaging $3,300 apiece, according to the state’s Department of Revenue. 

“We took a little hit in March when this pandemic hit, but we’re back,” says Mr. Hock, who has 75 cows. “I’m doing good.” 

No misgivings

As a group, farmers are reliably conservative voters, and the ups and downs of the Trump years haven’t changed their politics. “There is little evidence of a farm revolt against Mr. Trump,” writes Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, in a recent report on Wisconsin. “Farmers are much more Republican than non-farmers, so most support Trump,” he writes. 

Duane Stateler, who raises pigs in east-central Ohio, says he has no misgivings about voting again for the president. 

“I think by far the farmers in my local area and across the state are for a continuation of the Trump administration,” says Mr. Stateler, who sends 16,000 pigs to market each year. In 2019, pork producers suffered when China, the world’s largest pork consumer, temporarily stopped buying American pork in retaliation against U.S. tariffs. Then COVID-19 forced the shutdown of some meat plants.

“We had gotten through the trade crisis and things were starting to rebound,” Mr. Stateler says. “There was still optimism, just as the shutdown happened.”

In the end, however, pork exports rose 9% in 2019. In January, Mr. Stateler joined other pork producers at the White House for the signing of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which should help both hog and dairy exporters. 

When COVID-19 hit, Mr. Stateler cut back on protein in his hogs’ feed so they wouldn’t gain weight, buying him time until demand recovered. And even though Mr. Stateler had a close friend hospitalized for COVID-19, he doesn’t fault Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

“I don’t think anybody could have done anything different,” he says. “You cannot blame this on one person.”

Reducing “burdensome” regulations

Brigette Leach, a farmer in Climax, Michigan, another battleground state, says she also will vote for Mr. Trump, citing his rollback of environmental and other regulations. 

“I wish sometimes he didn’t tweet quite as much,” she says. “But on the other hand, that’s almost inconsequential.”

Ms. Leach, who with her husband grows vegetables for direct sale to consumers and restaurants, is a regional board member of the Michigan Farm Bureau. In meetings, when farmers are asked “What keeps you up at night?” their top response is usually regulation.  

“The food safety regulations are a bit burdensome,” she says. “If [our operations] get much bigger, they become more burdensome and more costly.”  

Like other farmers, she is wary of the influence of Green New Deal proponents in a Biden administration, though Mr. Biden has disavowed the plan. “Anything that looks or sounds like the Green New Deal – I see nothing in any of it that bodes well for agriculture,” Ms. Leach says. 

Not all farmers are standing with Mr. Trump, of course. “I’ve been opposed to Trump from the very beginning,” says Jacob Rieke, a hog farmer in Fairfax, Minnesota. “I’ve always seen him as a terrible person. I think he’s done a terrible job for farmers.”

Richard Mertens
Farmer Jerry Biese in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, hopes President Donald Trump will win a second term, but he’s not confident of a Republican victory.

Voting Libertarian                                                  

But some who reject Mr. Trump still aren’t prepared to embrace Mr. Biden. 

Dan Diederich, a dairy farmer near De Pere, Wisconsin, says he plans to vote for the Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgensen. Standing in a muddy pasture, with sandhill cranes bugling in the distance, Mr. Diederich expressed skepticism about Mr. Trump’s trade policies. “My gut feeling is that we are worse off,” he says. “But somebody needs to stand up to China. We had Obama as president for eight years. Did he go after China? No. It got worse. I believe wholeheartedly that Biden will not confront China.”

A committed conservationist – he plants cover crops widely and thinks more should be done against climate change – Mr. Diederich prefers government incentives over regulations to achieve environmental goals.

“The Democrats made a lot of noise in the last few years with their environmental talk that farmers don’t like,” he says. 

Jerry Biese, who farms in Outagamie County, says he worries about trade wars and dislikes Mr. Trump’s manner. “I think he should wait before he voices his opinion,” he says. But the administration’s policies have pleased him. “They’re trying to bring jobs back to the United States.”

Still, Mr. Biese is a realist. Farmers represent a shrinking group – just 9% of Wisconsin voters – and he knows firsthand some of the anti-Trump feeling in the state. “I have a daughter-in-law, if you say ‘Trump’ to her, the hair just stands up on the back of her neck,” he says. “I have a granddaughter the same way.” 

“I hope he does win,” says Mr. Biese, perched on his tractor with his hood up against a north wind. “But in my opinion, I don’t think he will.”                                                                 

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